You would have had to be very naive to believe that the G20 meeting in Washington last weekend would really mark, as Gordon Brown put it, 'the birth pangs of this new global order' demanded by the world economic crisis.
The G20 brings together the Group of Eight (G8) leading industrial countries with the most important 'emerging market economies'. Advance hype compared the summit to the 1944 Bretton Woods conference that established institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
But Bretton Woods followed years of negotiations between the only two actors that counted – Britain and the US. Essentially the old imperialist power grudgingly accepted the demands of its successor for an international financial system that corresponded to US interests.
By contrast, the recent crisis has confirmed a long-term decline in the relative power of the US. At the summit, French president Nicolas Sarkozy rubbed this in. 'America is still the number one power in the world,' he said. 'Is it the only one? No, it isn't.'
As commentators have repeated to the point of cliché, the summit was significant because it saw states such as Brazil, China, India, Saudi Arabia, and South Africa joining the top table. 'We are talking about the G20 because the G8 doesn't have any more reason to exist,' Brazil's president Lula said.
But this dispersal of power makes it harder to reach solutions. As Gideon Rachman pointed out in the Financial Times, 'One of the reasons Bretton Woods worked was that the US was clearly the most powerful country at the table and so ultimately was able to impose its will on the others.'
Now the US, weakened but still very powerful, struggles to manage divergent interests that are too strong to ignore. And to complicate things further, the current US president George Bush is the lamest of lame ducks. President-elect Barack Obama stayed away, contenting himself with sending a couple of observers.
In the circumstances, the summit wasn't going to achieve much. There was a lot of talk about how to shut the stable door after the horse had bolted. French demands for international regulation of financial markets were vetoed by the US.
More interestingly, the summit agreed to a year-long moratorium on protectionist measures. This might be seen as an effort by Bush and Brown, both of whom have been singing the virtues of free trade recently, to tie Obama's hands.
Obama campaigned on a platform strongly critical of the damaging effect of international competition on US jobs and is demanding, against opposition from Bush, that the federal government intervene to rescue the rapidly sinking US car industry.
But Bush didn't block the most important decision of the summit from Brown's point of view – a call on states to 'use fiscal measures to stimulate domestic demand to rapid effect'.
Obama and the Democrats are planning a big package of tax cuts and spending increases stop the US economy's tail-dive into slump. The economist Paul Krugman calculates that this stimulus would have to be 4 percent of US national income – a whopping $600 billion. China announced $586 billion of extra spending last week.
Brown wants to introduce a package of tax cuts here worth perhaps 2 percent of national income. To have the maximum effect they would have to be financed by borrowing rather than by cuts in public spending.
The treasury is nervous about this because too sharp a rise in government debt might – as Tory shadow chancellor George Osborne has been shrieking – cause the pound to fall even further than it already has.
An internationally sanctioned stimulus gives Brown political and economic cover to cut taxes and raise borrowing. But the fact that this is the direction in which leading states are moving shows how worried they are.